The Yankees backs are now officially against the wall as they face their first real “must win game” of the season. You can break out all the clichés because they finally apply. After losing their third straight game to the Rangers, the Yankees are now precariously teetering on the edge of elimination.
When Joe Girardi announced his starting rotation, the situation the Yankees now find themselves in wasn’t hard to fathom. Nonetheless, the Yankees still had a chance to win game four, as evidenced by the 3-2 lead they carried into the sixth inning. Unfortunately, a combination of poor hitting with men on base and a series of curious managerial decisions combined to give the Rangers another commanding victory in an ALCS that Texas has absolutely dominated.
The first five innings of the game featured numerous twists and turns and plenty of surprises, but perhaps none more so than the initial effectiveness of AJ Burnett. Over the first two innings, Burnett used a mid-90s fastball and off the table curve to retire all six batters, including three on strikeouts. Being the enigma that he is, however, Burnett still managed to give up two runs in the third despite having his good stuff. The Rangers’ rally in that inning consisted of a walk to David Murphy after being ahead 0-2 and then a HBP against Molina, who was squaring to bunt, both of which were followed by a series of infield grounders that eventually lead to the both runners crossing the plate.
The Yankees’ offense seemed as if it might break out of its series long slump against Tommy Hunter when Robinson Cano gave the Yankees a 1-0 lead with a homerun that just got over the ball in right. On the play, several fans made contact with Nelson Cruz’ glove, but the umpire ruled that the right fielder did not actually have a play on the ball. Later in the inning, controversy reared its head again when Lance Berkman hit what looked like the Yankees second homerun of the inning. After a replay review, however, the ball was ruled foul and the second run was taken off the board.
After Burnett gave up the lead in the top of the third, the Yankees scored single runs in the third and fourth to regain the advantage. In the later frame, however, the Yankees had a chance to do much more damage, but an Elvis Andrus diving play with the bases loaded turned a two run single into an RBI fielder’s choice that nabbed the advancing runner at third. At that point, the decision to start Francisco Cervelli proved most costly as the anemic backup catcher was dispatched on three pitches. By forgoing an opportunity to use Jorge Posada, Girardi forfeited a valuable scoring opportunity. The Yankees failure to capitalize would also foreshadow the play that eventually led to the team’s demise only two innings later.
In the bottom of the fifth inning, a lead off double by Derek Jeter and walk to Curtis Granderson seemed to put the Yankees on the brink of breaking open the game. When Mark Teixeira worked the count to 2-0, the entire Stadium probably had visions of a long fly ball landing into the leftfield bleachers. Unfortunately, Teixeira’s series-long struggles continued, but this time the Yankees’ rally wasn’t the only victim. As he has repeatedly done in the postseason, Teixeira rolled over on an outside fastball and hit a potential groundball double play to third base. Sensing his fate, and perhaps venting his frustration, Teixeira busted out of the box and ran as fast as he could to first base. As things turned out, Teixeira’s hustle wasn’t really needed because Young rushed his return throw to first, but that was only evident after the Yankees’ first baseman had collapsed at the bag with what was later diagnosed as grade two strain of his hamstring, an injury that ended his season at least one game prematurely.
Once Teixeira went down, it seemed as if the air was taken out of the Stadium. And, what little was left, dissipated when Alex Rodriguez also continued his series-long slump with an inning ending double play. Although the Yankees exited the inning holding onto a 3-2 lead, you couldn’t help but feel that the game, and perhaps the series, had been lost in the fateful inning.
When Rangers’ starter Tommy Hunter got into trouble in the fourth, Ron Washington quickly called to the bullpen and was rewarded by the strong pitching of Derek Holland, who went 3 2/3 innings and only gave up one hit. Unfortunately for the Yankees, Girardi was not as prescient. Despite getting a strong five innings from AJ Burnett, the Yankees’ manager decided to tempt fate with his erratic righty who had not pitched in nearly three weeks. Sure enough, Vladimir Guerrero led off the sixth with a line drive single to right. In fairness to Burnett, the single probably would have been caught by someone like Greg Golson, but for some unexplainable reason, Girardi opted to use Marcus Thames in right field when Nick Swisher was pressed into duty at 1B. Burnett did rebound to get the next two batters, but on the second out, a fly ball to deep center, Cruz, who reached first on a fielder’s choice, advanced to second. Instead of going to Boone Logan, his lefty specialist, to face David Murphy, Girardi then committed a baseball cardinal sin by putting the go ahead runner on base with an intentional walk. Sure enough, the Yankees’ manager was made to repent on the very next pitch as Bengie Molina deposited a first pitch fastball into the short porch in left.
Although the score was only 5-3 in the sixth, the combination of Teixeira’s injury, the Yankees inability to come through with a big hit and Girardi’s managerial blunders seemed to raise a collective white flag. Even when the Rangers tried to give the Yankees new life by loading the bases on walks in the eighth, they couldn’t even take advantage by scoring a single run. Finally, in the ninth, Girardi waived a real white flag by bringing in Sergio Mitre, who promptly gave up long HRs to Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz to put an end to any hopes for another miraculous comeback.
The only positive about Girardi’s ill conceived pitching rotation is the Yankees now have C.C. Sabathia in game five. If the ace lefty can continue his dominance at Yankee Stadium, it’s actually not hard to imagine a path that leads back to a game 7. The only problem, however, is what waits at the end of that road. The Yankees are far from done in the series, but the team now not only needs to reel off three wins a row, but they must overcome Cliff Lee to do it. Normally, the vision of Lee on the mound in a deciding game would be enough to send chills down the collective spine of an opposing lineup, but for the Yankees, there’s now no one else they’d rather see.